The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era 

Tourism team aims to bring visitors to county, SH – by the busload


February 23, 2016

JIMMIE LUCHT, director of the Albany Visitors Association, holds a flyer he and Melody Johnson pass out at tourism conferences and to visitors who come to their office. Photos by Scott Swanson

Picture luxury buses full of tourists rolling into Sweet Home – and stopping here.

That’s what Melody Johnson has in mind for Linn County – all of it, including the eastern side.

Johnson has worked for three years as a consultant for the Albany Visitors Association to bring tourism, particularly “packaged travel,” to the county and her efforts, she and AVA Director Jimmie Lucht say, are starting to pay off.

“There’s a great deal of interest in the Sweet Home area,” Johnson said as she prepared to go to yet another tourism convention.

So far, this year, she’s been to the American Bus Association’s annual Marketplace convention, which ran Jan. 6-12 in Louisville, Ky., which brought together 35 bus tour operators who were looking for destinations to take their clients. After that, it was the National Travel Association show in Atlanta Jan. 31-Feb. 4. Those were two of the biggies, but she’s had dozens of smaller-scale meetings and telephone conversations with travel planners and tour operators, all aimed at making them aware of Linn County.

“This West Coast region is like the Oregon Territory,” said Johnson, who’s never at a loss for adjectives in describing the region’s potential. “Most of them concentrate east of the Mississippi. West of the Mississippi, it’s like a gold rush.”

Johnson, who owned a country inn near Mt. Hood before moving into the tour business, now operates Falcon’s Crest Inc., a Longview, Wash.-based tourism and tour consulting business.

She began working with AVA three years ago and during that time has visited various tourist-oriented groups such as chambers of commerce and the Visit Linn Coalition, an ad hoc group of public officials and private citizens interested in promoting the growth of tourism in the county.

She and Lucht have become regular attenders at ABA and ATA events, efforts that they say are now beginning to bear fruit.

“This industry is like planting a garden,” Lucht said. “You plant the seeds and fertilize. Eventually, you get produce. That’s what we’re doing.”

A study conducted in 2014 by Dean Runyan Associates, a Portland-based research firm specializing in the travel industry, indicated that tourism accounted for 1,630 jobs in Linn County – a 12.6 percent increase over 10 years previously, and $136.6 million in revenue – a 48 percent increase over a decade.

Lucht noted that, according to the study, the Willamette Valley’s tourism behavior patterns differ somewhat from Oregon as a whole. In this region, in 2014, 56 percent of visits were related to family, with just 36 percent for leisure or other “marketable” purposes. In Oregon as a whole, those figures are almost diametrically opposite, 33 percent of visits for family and 59 percent marketable.

Johnson said that’s what she’s told Albany city officials, who fund the AVA, located on the corner of 3rd and Lyon in downtown Albany: “This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes relationship-building, networking.

“The first year, when you go to trade shows, you get your name out there to these tour operators. They remember you. And when they see you later, they’re ready to talk seriously about bringing people here. That’s our product.”

The market is there, they say. Lucht noted that 900-plus tour buses stop each year at the Woodburn factory outlet stores.

“They’re going up and down I-5,” he said, adding that AVA is seeking to connect with the people who plan those tours.

“The idea is to get those passengers off I-5 to spend the night, hopefully – go see some of the local sights. Once they do, they spend bucks. That’s what this is all about, getting some of those tourism dollars.”

Their target is “frequent independent travelers,” the kind of visitors who, as Johnson put it recently to a local group, “walk in during your festivals and say, ‘Gee, we’re from out of town. What is there to do?”

She said Sweet Home has some unique attractions right now. She envisions dinners served to visitors on Weddle covered bridge in Sankey Park.

“That’s huge, because it’s unusual,” she said.

Another is the Holleywood Ranch on Old Holley Road, which allows visitors to search for petrified wood that is plentiful in that valley.

“That’s one-of-a-kind,” she said. “It’s not something you drive up I-5 and see 20 of them. It sets you apart.”

Another attraction for visitors is the East Linn Museum.

Travelers, she said, like to get a sense of what a community is all about when they visit.

“When bringing new groups in, it’s very important to get a sense of direction. Why are we here? The museum does that.”

She and other AVA staffers hand out “Seven Wondrous Trails” cards to tour directors, which promote Albany and the county’s history, culinary offerings, arts, scenery, outdoor adventure attractions such as McDowell Creek Park, festivals and more.

Sample itineraries for visitors are offered on the AVA website.

A number of tour operators have already turned their attention toward Linn County. They include:

n Adventure Caravans, a Texas-based company that is a leader in guided caravan tours for RVs – dozens of them, offering more than 60 itineraries in North America and beyond. Last year the firm sent two of its “wagon masters” to Albany, where Johnson gave them a tour of Linn County.

She said Adventure Caravans has set up a 20-day trip starting in Albany, where 30 RVs will spend three days – “105 room nights.”

“That doesn’t include RVs that come early,” said Johnson.

n She’s met with a Columbia River cruise planner about opportunities away from the river.

That’s still in the works, but she is negotiating pre- and post-cruise tours and talking with the operators about changing some itineraries to take advantage of what the mid-Willamette Valley has to offer.

“Sometimes it takes a couple of years for that to happen. I told him there is so much you can see and do (in the Mid-Willamette Valley) – enough for 10 days,” she said.

n She’s approached Meeting Planners International, “a new market we’re going after, trying to entice these meeting planners to move out of the Portland region a little bit into the Mid-Willamette Valley, where we have more affordable, beautiful meeting locations.”

The organization’s March regional meeting will be held at the recently constructed Boulder Falls Inn in Lebanon.

“This is a huge coup,” Johnson said. “We’re up against some pretty stiff competition.”

n She attended the Select Travel conference in Little Rock, Ark. Feb. 7-9, which serves “loyalty program directors” who plan trips for banks that offer such to members and in an attempt to establish relationships with loyal customers.

Planners of such trips, who traditionally have focused on destinations in the East and Midwest, are getting increasingly interested in travel to western states and next year’s show is going to be in California, and Johnson plans to be there to follow up on progress she made this year.

“I have a couple of dozen confirmed appointments with these bank leaders,” she said. “All of them were familiar or have been or are going to the West with their group. When we sat down, we had a lot to talk about.

“One lady said, ‘Oregon. Isn’t that where the wines are?’

“They’re kind of a niche, under the radar like the Red Hat Society,” Johnson said. “This group focuses on inviting bank travel leaders to this show so people like us can sit down with them. It’s difficult to walk into a bank and say, ‘Hi, I’m from the AVA.’

“There are no expectations. Whatever happens will be good. We know they’re here, we know they come to the Northwest.”

Linn County is “strategically located” between San Francisco and the Portland and Seattle areas,” she said.

“You couldn’t ask for a better location.”

n She’s also been discussing tour possibilities with Clipper Vacations, which provides vacation packages in the Northwest via boat, train, air and car, according to the company website.

Travel companies, such as Clipper, are “constantly looking for new ideas to send travelers on,” Johnson said. “We’ve kind of had to come up with some wondrous journeys – the petrified wood ranch or lunch at The Point. This is what we’re pitching to travel agents.”

Albany will also host the inaugural “Spotlight on the Northwest” Sept. 18-20, put on by the Spotlight Travel Network, an “informal” group of travel agents who have held similar events for years in other parts of the country, featuring seminars, networking functions and trade shows.

Lucht said the event is “filling up fast,” with 40 attendees at last count – which was supposed to be the cut-off.

“This is an opportunity to get these tour operators who have probably never visited the Northwest,” Johnson said. “You do your very best when this happens. In two years, hopefully, we’ll see tour operators bringing groups here to the Willamette Valley.”

She said AVA is “aggressively pursuing three major events” to bring visitors to the county.

“Exciting things are happening.”

One is the Northwest Tandem Rally, to be held this year in Klamath Falls July 1-4 after landing in Bellingham, Wash. in 2015.

The event attracts more than 900 participants on 400 bicycles, who stay four to five days in area hotels, eating in local restaurants.

She also has her sights on the Northwest Travel Writers Conference, titled “Travel and Words,” to be held in Yakima, Wash. May 16-17.

The event brings together 30 to 50 travel writers who take “fun tours” and day trips and “experience what the country has to offer,” she said.

A third that she has her sights set on for Linn County is the FoodWorx Conference, the annual gathering of the World Food Travel Association, which meets each year – Feb. 20 this year. Linn County has been selected as the site of the association’s “post-Portland workshop,” for 2017, she said.

Participants in the three-day “post” event will go on tours of the area, showcasing “anything that has to do with food.”

“These people come from all over the world,” she said, adding that she intends to make them aware that this area of the Willamette Valley is “not only the wine capital, but also the breadbasket of the state.”

This month she plans to attend shows in Portland and Seattle to meet with travel agents, selling “Seven Wondrous Trails of the Willamette Valley.”

“Anybody could take a look at these itineraries and say, ‘We could do this and have a fun afternoon.

“A travel agent needs these for Mr. and Mrs. John Doe, celebrating their 25th anniversary, who want to spend three days doing something interesting.”

Johnson said that Linn County communities and the AVA have taken steps in the right direction to attract such business.

If Linn County wants to build its tourism industry, it’s going to take a group effort – and a brand.

“The saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ applies,” she said.

Communities in the county must believe that it will happen and work together.

“It has to come from within,” Johnson said. “Hats off to the AVA and Jimmie. He realizes that in order to make the tourism thing work, we have to involve all the players. There’s a strong partnership in Linn County.

MELODY JOHNSON, left, speaks to a group of Sweet Home and Brownsville residents about her efforts to bring tourists to the area.

Local communities have worked together through the Visit Linn Coalition for years, and have built a website,, in conjunction with The New Era, to promote tourism activities throughout the county.

Johnson said there is progress still to be made in addition to attracting visitors. One need is front-line training for people who will interact with tourists in local communities, and another is a brand.

“That’s on our hot list,” said Johnson, who has worked with both Eugene and Clackamas to create slogans for their communities. The process is “arduous” and will cost money, but “that’s at the top of our priority list for 2016, 2017.”

“We have to figure out how to package it here,” she said. “You cannot imagine how important that is.”


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2018